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Is blockchain the future for photography IP?

Just as blockchain fatigue started to set in, things began to get interesting. In removing the cryptocurrency blinkers, hype-free use cases for the technology are emerging that are tackling real world problems. For example, The IBM Food Trust uses a blockchain solution to store the history and location of any individual food item. Singapore Airlines have launched a blockchain-based loyalty programme and authorities are even investigating the potential of blockchain for voting.

So just how does blockchain work?

It’s nothing more than a record of transaction data, but one that offers verified proof of every transaction. Think about something like renting an apartment. You have an agreed and signed contract, proof of inspection, receipts for your deposit and a record of your first payment. The person who owns the apartment also has a copy of all these details. A management company probably does too. But not everyone has exactly the same information – it all varies slightly. And there’s always a chance that in two years, when you want to move on, that there may be a dispute about the deposit, or terms of the inspection or exit fees. And because everyone has slightly different versions of the same information, this could be a lengthy, costly and frustrating situation.

If all elements of the rental were on a blockchain, there would be no argument. Everyone would have identical records and any additional changes, such as rent increases, could be added to the blockchain in the same way – each block holds a record of a transaction, so every time a new transaction is made, it is logged and added to the chain. At the end of the tenancy, agreement to exit terms would be simple.

Blockchain is quite literally that: blocks of information that are linked together to form an immutable chain.

All for one and one for all

The real appeal of blockchain, however, lies in one fundamental concept – consensus. Because everything that is written to a blockchain is shared by thousands of members globally, every transaction is validated by all members and nothing can be deleted. This makes it superb for protecting intellectual property. “We are big believers that blockchain applications should be accessible for all,” says Stanislav Stolberg, the CEO of tech start-up Photochain. He believes passionately in the power of blockchain as a way to protect the rights and livelihoods of photographers as they seek to sell their work. He and his team are on a mission to give photographers and content buyers a better way to transact by using the blockchain, not only to protect the integrity of photographer’s work, but, in Stanislav’s words “remove a lot of compliance and administration to the licence database.”

The premise behind the service is much the same as other stock photography services. Images are uploaded to a website for sale and buyers download them for an agreed license for use, but this license is neither created nor held by Photochain. Instead it is mutually formed between buyer and seller through a digital ‘smart contract’, which then resides on the blockchain. In reality, this happens automatically when you click the ‘buy’ button after selecting an image to purchase from the Photochain marketplace.

So, where most stock photography services use a subscription service and control the amount of money images are sold for, Photochain simply acts as a conduit. Photographers decide for themselves how much money to charge for their work and buyers can ‘pay as they go’ for the license to use images. “If in five or 10 years the photographer or the content buyer want to validate the licence, they can do this,” explains Stanislav. “Even if Photochain does not exist.” He refers, of course, to the longevity and integrity of blockchain technology. After all, it has already outlasted many of the original cryptocurrencies that launched it.

A diagram, explaining the way that a transaction works on the blockchain.
Is blockchain the future for photography IP?

Smart contracts

At the heart of what Stanislav describes as the “intrinsic trust” element of Photochain is a ‘smart contract’, “a piece of code which cannot be manipulated”. Essentially this is a clever piece of code that, when stored on the blockchain, forms a traceable, transparent and irreversible agreement between a buyer and a seller. In the case of Photochain, each photographer, content buyer and image have a unique identifier, so when a payment has been made and image downloaded, both buyer and seller receive a link to a unique transaction record for that image on the blockchain. This is an incontestable licensing agreement and from this point Photochain has no intervention whatsoever. “Even we cannot influence the smart contract,” says Stanislav. This low-touch approach turns the business model for stock photography on its head. By facilitating a ‘marketplace’ between photographer and buyer and using smart contracts for licenses that sit on the blockchain, the overheads of Photochain are significantly lower – which means that photographers will typically receive 80% of the buying price for their images.   

But how does this protect creative assets?

Many, many copyright cases go to court every year. Some are well-reported breaches of intellectual property, where photographers and other creatives have effectively had their work ‘stolen’ – used without payment or permission. Others are more complex and centre around the nature of the image use. The beauty of a smart contract held on the blockchain means that it is clear, verified evidence of the agreement between buyer and seller. Further still, in the event that Photochain is the only place a photographer sells their images, then every single image in their commercial portfolio will have a smart contract in place at the point of sale. On the flip side, the contract also ensures buyers receives the image they have paid for.

The speed at which disputes can be settled is another benefit of smart contracts, ultimately saving a lot of costly court time – and with the potential knock-on effect of encouraging more photographers and artists to defend their creations. This kind of mindset change through technology is obviously not unheard of and, if used at scale, blockchain has the potential to be a force for good in the protection of intellectual property.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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